By James Dail (CMC ’20)
The state of Utah is an enigma for education policy makers. Most of the states that receive high marks on state education rankings typically have two things in common: they spend a large portion of their budget on funding public education and they have low student-teacher ratios. By both of these measures, Utah should be at the bottom of the pack. It spends the second least amount of money per pupil than any other state, and it has the second highest student-teacher ratio . Yet, stunningly, while not quite being up to par with the likes of Massachusetts and New Jersey, Utah holds its own: it consistently ranks in the top twenty best education systems in the country . What is even more shocking is that Utah’s education system seems geared towards aiding poor students. Education has long been seen as the way to promote social mobility, and in a ranking of social mobility in each state, Utah came in first place, with students in the bottom quintile of the income distribution having a 10.8% chance of reaching the top income quintile . What sets Utah apart?
Part of the reason for Utah’s success lies in how it regulates the districting of its public-school systems. In most of the nation, public school districts are based around a single neighborhood or community. As a result, children go to school with people who come from largely the same socio-economic background as them. Utah on the other hand, is committed to promoting socio-economic diversity. They intentionally form their school districts so that low income students will be attending school with those from wealthier communities . There are some places where this cannot be done. They would not bus children from border towns over to Park City for example, but for the most part, this creates a broad sense of joint middle-classness. According to BYU economist David Sims, this gives poorer children, who might otherwise see no point in doing well at school, a tangible goal to work towards .
Another reason for this success lies in the attitude of its bureaucracy. Utah is a red state, and their welfare network is small. Yet is has proven to be effective at ensuring that people have many of their basic needs met, and by extension, that children have a secure environment to grow-up in. They take a compassionate, blind approach to welfare. This is most evident in its “war on homelessness.” Whereas some states mandate that homeless people overcome alcohol or drug addiction before they give aid, Utah ensures that everyone has a roof over their head when they go to sleep at night before addressing these problems . In addition to meeting physical needs, Utah is committed to ensuring that every child is nurtured and cared for. When a couple has a child, it may be financially difficult for one of the parents to stay at home and raise the child. While many states offer a tax credit simply for having children, Utah goes a step further and offers a tax credit for a parent who takes time off of work and stays at home while their spouse is working . This ensures that children will actually be cared for by their parents. It is not quite maternity leave, but it is a start. However, the most important factor in creating stability in the life of a child is not so much political as it is cultural. Utah leads the way in children who belong to a household headed by a married couple , and it remains one of the few states where marriage is the social norm. A study conducted by the economists Isabel Sawhill and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institute identified marriage as being the most important factor in reducing poverty for the next generation . All of these factors contribute to a relatively stable home life for even the poorest Utahns. This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs at work. When children have their basic needs met, they are free to focus on their studies.
Utah’s schools are clearly performing well despite having a high student-teacher ratio and low per-pupil spending. The most striking thing about Utah’s policies is that they can easily be replicated. Even Utah’s high marriage rate, which is not so much caused by a policy than a social norm, can be replicated in other parts of the country. All that would be required is an extension of Utah’s tax credit system so that couples with children are encouraged to stay married. Utah’s experience suggests that the United States wants to improve its global education ranking, it may not have to perform a complete overhaul of the education system – it only has to foster stability and a sense of community.